People gathered in a light-filled gallery for a performance.

In their own words:
New Contemporaries artists on using language in their practice

Ruby Lewis performing at Leeds Art Gallery, November 2019. Photo: Jules Lister.

As a collaborator on the New Writing with New Contemporaries (NWwNC) project I’ve had the privilege of meeting the six nominated artists who use writing or language predominantly in their work. What immediately struck me about the group was their optimism – a sharp, switched-on kind of energy that seems to cut through the current smog of political despair. Their performances at Leeds Art Gallery in November made me sit up and listen/feel, and revisit them in my thoughts afterwards. They were in turns tragic, funny, haunting, mesmerising and painfully honest, leaving me lightheaded and hopeful for humans, and our incredible capacity to communicate.

Their own thoughts on their practice, which they’ve since shared with me, are similarly insightful. I’ve asked them to reflect on the role of language in their work, how it allows them to do things that other mediums don’t, and how they’d like their work to be received.

A person perches, crouched, on a blue chair. They are reading from a page, amplified through a clip-on microphone. Next to them is a laptop, lamp and water bottle on a table.

Jude Browning performing at Leeds Art Gallery, 9 November 2019. Photo: Jules Lister.

Jude Browning

Browning sees her practice as research-led, and she has a close relationship with reading and writing as a sort of method. She’s fascinated by language and its nebulous quality – ‘even as you’re moving closer to precision, it opens up multiple further options’. The Greco-Roman origins of public speaking and its modes of address (also the subject of her PhD), are explored in her work as inherently theatrical. Her embodiments of patriarchal power remind us that naturalism is but another construction, one we either learn to affect or become subjugated by. She is concerned with the live voice as ‘an operation of power and language’ that can be dangerously exclusive.

As a radical form of disruption, Browning uses physical movements such as the ‘flop’ to interrupt, mid-flow, the act of pacing and reading prewritten texts. She says her performances are ‘an exercise in criticising my own register’, undermining an academic or ‘institutional standard of address’ by repeatedly falling to the floor. Her failure to deliver the text uninterrupted feels important somehow, empowering. The way that she strips bare hegemonic modes of address has particular relevance for our political moment, asking us to carefully tune in to the ways our elected leaders communicate and convince, and ultimately assert their power.

Lucy Cunningham

In Cunningham’s work, writing and performance are inextricably linked. She describes language as having a presence: ‘problematic, tumultuous, it’s hurt and care, it’s a raucous party in the mind and mouth’. Her piece for Leeds Art Gallery, This Room Hums, was delivered by three artists (one of them Ruby Lewis), where an audience followed them through the gallery spaces as they took turns reading and humming together. The atmosphere was one of a soft, solemn ritual, generating a kind of ‘electricity’ that is essential to Cunningham’s work:

‘I don’t want to give everything away, but rather create an atmosphere, a series of images, that people can move into through experiencing offered language. My pieces reflect on moments when people or happenings make me gasp, cry, lose it, lust for. I want audiences to think of such moments; to realise we’re all living through performances but not without others to aid us when we exit too soon, when we’re caught in stage curtains’.

Three people stand in a white, curved space, reading from printed pages they are holding. Audience members sit at either side of the stage area.

Lucy Cunningham, Ruby Lewis and Isabelle Pead performing at Leeds Art Gallery, 9 November 2019. Photo: Jules Lister.

Cunningham explains that communities have always operated through a kind of verbal mark-making; ‘utterances and movement directed by speech… lovers pen letters and texts, narratives are scribbled in margins, words are found in condensation on bus rides home’. She acknowledges that whilst painting and drawing are also conduits for voices, working directly with written and spoken language allows her to ‘feel more physically, more intimately’.

A white woman with brown hair, wearing a green shirt, stands at a microphone. She holds a water bottle.

Freya Dooley performing at Leeds Art Gallery, 9 November 2019. Photo: Jules Lister.

Freya Dooley

Dooley works across multiple mediums (visual essays, dialogues and fictions written collaboratively, moving image works, sound/broadcast based work), but for NC she’s developed a monologue that circles around the idea of the stand-in or understudy. She’s a captivating performer, delivering long texts from memory with the ease and self-deprecation of a comedian. She describes her process succinctly:

‘I enjoy fictionalising my everyday observations and experiences. The first person voice can be as awkward as it is liberating and as malleable as it is authoritative; particularly when writing for performance. I often play with narrative structures to combine seemingly disparate threads of attention, and hope to create space for the reader/ listener’s own associations’.

Like her NC counterparts (and writers in general), she uses writing as a tool to think things through, but also to ‘unpick something like a cohesive narrative amongst tangled and simultaneous thoughts’. She is especially interested in the potential and failings of language ‘to attempt to articulate things not easily articulated’. Dooley notes that the making of the work is a form of articulation in itself, one that is rarely used or documented in the final work. From this perspective, the processes of writing, editing and rehearsing represent a kind of whittling down, of finding an essential story or kernel of observation.

Two people contemplate a sculpture on a white plinth.

Malachy Harvey, ‘Afterthought’, at Leeds Art Gallery, 9 November 2019. Photo: Jules Lister.

Malachy Harvey

Keeping language and non-language elements in constant tension is a key concern in Harvey’s work. Likening them to ‘expanded spec sheets’ or ‘scores’, his pieces often take the form of sculptures that speak (as in the case of Afterthought, shown at Leeds Art Gallery). He stresses the importance of having multiple iterations of the same thing, that are also part of the same work, as you would have adaptations of a play script. Harvey explains that he started working explicitly with language after trying to ‘make sculpture [that was] related to a series of gestures, which pertained to a history of conflict’:

‘It became clear that the only way I could begin to chart the emotional valences and contradictions was to work with words as well… Language itself seemed a key material of this conflict and its own form of boundary object. I began to realise the qualitative similarities to other mediums—that ‘language/writing/words’ have a capacity for physicality and presence, as well as material resistance (they push back).’

Harvey downplays distinctions between language and physical material, pointing to a history of artists who were also critics, diarists, poets and scriptwriters, including the likes of Stuart Brisley, Robert Smithson, Emily Wardill, Pil and Galia Kollectiv, Eva Hesse, Ghislaine Leung, Emmy Beber and ‘poet in spite of himself’ Ad Reinhardt. He also recognises (with a nod to Leung), that language/ writing/ words are ways for artists to see and recognise what position to take, and can generate ‘a set of unexpected permissions’.

A black person stands at a microphone. They have a music stand with pages in front of them.

Leo Hermitt performing at Leeds Art Gallery, 9 November 2019. Photo: Jules Lister.

Leo Hermitt

Leo’s work reflects on the design of storytelling as a way of changing and challenging dominant narratives. With NWwNC they created and performed improvised compositions, expertly layering and looping music and spoken elements whilst performing live. There is something subtly manipulative in their use of words and gestures; you are drawn in by the friendly openness, the willingness to share, and then suddenly reminded of the seriousness of the message. In this way Leo mirrors the cultural coding of the times, redressing an imbalance of power by reinserting a marginalised voice and perspective about this experience. Working creatively, they are able to explore ‘new maps that break Eurocentric heteronormative framing of narratives, crafting political and playful space for freedom.’

Leo finds this journey liberating: ‘In a way I’m painting a picture of Black Freedom by simply telling my own story as a Black Queer Transgender person of Jamaican descent in Britain’. Unable to ignore the systemic discrimination they encounter as a BQT person, crafting and performing personal narratives are acts of liberation. They explain that ‘every added layer of description, however fragmented and intelligible, is a personal translation of experiences and stories’. For them, ‘being present and creatively putting ourselves back into the cultural cannon is a joyful thing’.

Ruby Lewis

Like Hermitt, Lewis wants her words to be received joyfully. Her performed texts are grounded in publications and (sometimes collaborative) bookmaking, from which sculptures and drawings can also emerge. She is quick to point out that language leads in her practice, explaining that it ‘feels much more mutable than a visual language, which feels more individual and specific’.

She finds idea of accessibility difficult and stressful, confessing that ‘I don’t know what is universal to an audience’. Instead, she relishes in the transferability of language, that it can be both collectively and individually owned: ‘I love that words aren’t mine, that they are communal… I’m borrowing, but they are also utterly mine’. For her piece at Leeds Art Gallery, The View, she spoke with gallery visitors and wove their conversations into a text, a shared reflection on the artworks in the Slow Painting exhibition. As she performed the text the audience was invited to contemplate the works.

Lewis’ inspiration comes from theory as opposed to fiction. When first introduced to language theory, she became fascinated by the question of whether language is innate or learned, and ‘the idea of it being this brimming buoyant mass, ever shifting, surrounding us, cloud like… the firmness of language, the translucency of it’. Lewis relies on this un-surety in her practice, allowing her to ‘talk around in circles’, and cast an evocative spell over her audience.

Making space for words in the visual arts

The impetus for NWwNC was to provide support and visibility for artists who work with language, and to recognise writing as a generative and increasingly central part of contemporary practices. While artists have been using words and text in their work for decades (a century?), traditional gallery formats still favour static form over performance. As Lewis observes, DIY poetry has no place in galleries, ‘like it’s too simple, or too easy or something’.

And yet it is the simple honesty of these works that makes them so spellbinding. Each performance is singular in its intimacy, unfurling in a particular space and with a particular audience. Deeply political messages come across as playful and delightfully subversive, as if the artists have learned (as a necessary strategy) to dance outside the hierarchies that threaten to contain and oppress them. They are free, full of critical play and ready to do battle. Don’t miss them at South London Gallery on the 25th of January.

This is the last in a series of three pieces commissioned in partnership with New Contemporaries (here, the first and second), and funded by Leeds Inspired. The six nominated New Writing with New Contemporaries artists performed at Leeds City Gallery on 9 November 2019, with a subsequent iteration at South London Gallery on 25 January, part of the touring Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2019 exhibition.

Lara Eggleton is a writer based in Leeds and Managing Editor of Corridor8.

This exploration is supported by New Contemporaries and Leeds Inspired.

Published 20.01.2020 by Lauren Velvick in Explorations

1,974 words